Saranchak v. Beard, CIVIL NO. 1:05-CV-0317

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtSylvia H. Rambo
PartiesDANIEL SARANCHAK, Petitioner v. JEFFREY BEARD, Commissioner, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; DAVID DiGUGLIELMO, Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Graterford; and FRANK TENNIS, Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, Respondents
Docket NumberCIVIL NO. 1:05-CV-0317
Decision Date24 April 2012

JEFFREY BEARD, Commissioner,
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections;
Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at
Graterford; and FRANK TENNIS,
Superintendent of
the State Correctional Institution
at Rockview, Respondents

CIVIL NO. 1:05-CV-0317


Dated: April 24, 2012

(Judge Rambo)



This matter comes before the court on remand from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit Court's judgment, received by this court on November 24, 2010, directed the court to deny in part Petitioner Daniel Saranchak's petition for writ of habeas corpus with respect to Claims I, II, and III,1

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and consider the remaining eight issues in the petition, including issues related to the penalty phase of the state court proceedings. (See Doc. 33-2.) As such, the petition is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.

I. Background

Saranchak is challenging his 1994 conviction for first degree murder and related charges in the Court of Common Pleas for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The facts surrounding the events which led to his conviction, as summarized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 866 A.2d 292, 296 (Pa. 2005) ("Saranchak-5"), are as follows:

On October 15, 1993, Daniel Saranchak . . . was drinking with a friend, Roy Miles (Miles), at Mickey Courtney's Sportsman Bar (Courtney's Bar) in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. [Saranchak] told Miles that he knew where they could acquire some money, but that they might have

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to kill someone to obtain it. Thereafter, the two men left the bar and went to [Saranchak's] brother's house. [Saranchak] obtained a .22 caliber rifle from his brother, feigning that he and Miles were going hunting. After leaving his brother's house, [Saranchak] and Miles went to a second bar and purchased two quarts of beer before driving to a residence in Cumbola, Pennsylvania (the Residence) shared by [Saranchak's] 87-year-old grandmother (Grandmother) and his uncle, Edmund Saranchak (Uncle).
Before entering the Residence, [Saranchak] stated that he was going to get some money from Grandmother. [Saranchak] and Miles entered the Residence through an unlocked basement door. Once inside, [Saranchak] walked directly to the sofa in the basement and shot Uncle in the head killing him almost instantly. [Saranchak] rolled Uncle over, while Miles rifled through the victim's pockets stealing his money. [Saranchak] and Miles then went to Grandmother's second floor bedroom. [Saranchak] asked Miles to shoot Grandmother, but he refused. Upon awakening, Grandmother asked, "Danny is that you?" [Saranchak] then fatally shot Grandmother once in the head. [Saranchak] and Miles proceeded to lower the bedroom's blinds and search Grandmother's room for money. They eventually stole some money from Grandmother's purse.2
Uncle had a breakfast meeting scheduled with his employer for the next morning. When Uncle failed to appear, his employer went to his home and spoke with a neighbor, who indicated he had not seen either victim since the previous day. Employer and the neighbor decided to enter the home, and upon doing so discovered Uncle's body. They called the police, who responded and found Grandmother's body. After securing the crime scene, police canvassed the neighborhood and questioned neighbors. Based upon the information obtained, police interviewed [Saranchak's] mother who, among other things, told the police that [Saranchak] had "gone shooting" the night before. She also informed police where [Saranchak] was residing. Based upon mother's

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information, the police obtained a search warrant for [Saranchak's] apartment and seized a .22 caliber rifle.3
On October 16, 1993, [Saranchak] was taken into custody, transported to a local police station and twice advised of his constitutional rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). He confessed to killing Uncle, but denied killing Grandmother.4


On September 6, 1994, Saranchak pleaded guilty to two counts of general homicide. After a degree of guilt hearing conducted without a jury, the trial court convicted Saranchak on two counts of first-degree murder, see 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2502(a), and all related charges. The Commonwealth sought the death penalty, and a jury was selected to determine the appropriate sentence. After the parties selected a jury on September 12, 1994, the penalty phase commenced on September 15, 1994. On September 16, 1994, the jury sentenced Saranchak to death on each conviction of first-degree murder. In doing so, the jury found two aggravating circumstances on each count of murder: (1) that the killing was committed during the perpetration of a

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felony, and (2) that Saranchak was convicted of another murder committed either before or at the time of the offense. The jury found no mitigating circumstances.

Saranchak filed a direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which affirmed his conviction in an opinion dated Apri1 24, 1996. Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 675 A.2d 268 (Pa. 1996) ("Saranchak-I"). Saranchak's subsequent petition for writ of certiorari was denied by the United States Supreme Court on January 6, 1997. Saranchak v. Pennsylvania, 519 U.S. 1061 (1997). He also mounted several unsuccessful collateral attacks of his conviction in the state courts pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9541 et seq.5 Saranchak filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on June 16, 2005. (Doc. 7.) The petition raises eleven issues. By memorandum and order dated January 4, 2008, the court granted the habeas petition as to the first three claims. (Doc. 29.) Respondents appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which reversed the granting of relief on the first three claims and remanded the matter for consideration of the merits of the remaining eight claims. Those eight claims are as follows:

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IV. Petitioner was denied his constitutional rights to cross examination at both the degree of guilt and sentencing hearings when, during cross examination, his alleged accomplice refused to answer relevant questions, and counsel was ineffective for failing to object and for failing to move to strike the testimony.
V. Mr. Saranchak was denied effective assistance of counsel at capital sentencing.
VI. The trial court unconstitutionally deprived Petitioner of the use of a mental health expert; prior counsel were ineffective for failing to object and litigate this claim.
VII. The trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the mitigating circumstance of extreme mental or emotional disturbance; defense counsel was ineffective for failing to object or request an appropriate instruction, and for failing to raise this claim on appeal.
VIII. Petitioner was denied his constitutional rights when the trial court improperly excused prospective jurors based upon their views concerning the death penalty.
IX. The trial court's instructions on the nature of aggravating and mitigating circumstances unconstitutionally prevented the jury from considering and giving full effect to relevant mitigating evidence and all prior counsel were ineffective for failing to object to the instructions or otherwise raise this issue.
X. Petitioner was denied his constitutional rights to due process, to a fair and impartial penalty phase, to the effective assistance of counsel, and against cruel and unusual punishment, when the prosecutor engaged in improper argument, where defense counsel failed to object at trial or raise the issue on appeal, and where the court took no action to cure the error.

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XI. Petitioner is entitled to relief from his conviction and sentence because of the cumulative effect of the errors described in this petition and found in prior proceedings.

(Doc. 7 at 4-5.) The court will discuss these issues in turn after setting forth the standards of review.

II. Standards of Review

On April 24, 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), Pub.L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996), went into effect and amended the standards for reviewing state court judgments in federal habeas petitions filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A habeas corpus petition pursuant to § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a prisoner to challenge the "fact or duration" of his confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99 (1973). "[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). Rather, federal habeas review is restricted to claims based "on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Estelle, 502 U.S. at 68.

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A. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

Habeas corpus relief cannot be granted unless all available state remedies have been exhausted, or there is an absence of available state...

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